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Spotlight, Trumbo and Walls of Silence

Walls of silence can hide controversial issues from public view and two recent films, Spotlight and Trumbo, illustrate the complexities of these silences. In Spotlight, investigators break a wall of silence to expose corruption, and in Trumbo a wall of silence  protects the voices of oppressed individuals.

Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight is about a team of journalists at the Boston Globe known as “Spotlight” and their investigation of the child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic Priests in Massachusetts, which published January 6, 2002.  Complications in this story emerge with reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) in their quest for truth-telling. In parallel the political landscape of opposing issues between church and state is embodied in two lawyers, Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup) and Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci). The outcomes of these power struggles are ugly if not hideous. The film does not romanticize the justice rendered as problem solved, lessons learned. It exposes consequences at a human level. In fact, once instances of abuse are exposed it becomes painfully obvious that these acts have left damage, disorder, and harm on all sides.

The next film, Jay Roach’s Trumbo, is about a wall of silence that went up for different reasons in the 1950s. Staged at the time of the McCarthy Hearings of the Committee on Un-American Activities, this wall stands as a defense against the Committee’s  attack on the cultural underbelly of Hollywood. Writers, actors, and directors suspected of being members of the Communist Party were defamed, jailed, and harmed in more violent ways. In response, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) and his spouse Cleo Trumbo (Diane Lane) took matters into their own hands and went underground to network Trumbo and others writing under pseudonyms. 

Trumbo seems to have a long, wordy script; but the pace escalates into a polarized firestorm of cultural frustration, between the compelling character roles of John Goodman’s Frank King (a producer of films that would qualify as “bad movies”) and Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper (the news columnist out to ridicule and expose Communists). Eventually at the eclipse of McCarthy’s witch hunts, the writers in  hiding re-emerge as celebrated artists.

There is something for everyone in these films and both received high ratings from critics. Their timely release within the currently polarized American political climate makes for a poignant cultural backdrop to contemplate.  These films remind us that the cost of suppression and the justice of exposing it comes with real human consequences that know no politics.

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The Gift

Critics say director Joel Edgerton’s The Gift is wickedly smart and playfully subversive. On the evening I saw this film, the audience members seemed on the edges of their seats.  When the film begins, Robyn (Rebecca Hall) and Simon (Jason Bateman) set up household in Los Angeles to restart their lives. Soon after, they run into Simon’s high school classmate, Gordo (Joel Edgerton), and from there we see the plot unfold through Robyn’s point of view.  Gordo continues to surface as an uninvited guest, which casts an unsettling shadow over the couple’s new life in L.A. The plot turns and suspicion begins to shift between Simon and Gordo creating a gripping sense of uncertainty. The more information Robyn discovers, the more the mystery unfolds through twists and turns.

This film is psychologically intense. It’s more about mind games than bloody grotesque horror tropes — the house is not haunted, but a ghost is emerges in the film’s compelling plot.

I might see this one again!

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American Ultra


Nima Nourizadeh’s American Ultra is a film that is deceptively funny, warm, and scary at the same time. The reviews for this film were tepid, but I have to disagree with them. I liked the film.

As the story opens, audience members meet a stoner, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives in a small rural town with his girlfriend, Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart). The Audience watches the prologue unfold through Mike’s eyes, when strange things begin to happen. A clue at a time is revealed when CIA agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) goes searching for Mike. We find that he was at one time a government agent, who has been deactivated. Mike is marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. He’s too well-trained, however, (and too high) for the CIA to keep up with him. Telling any more would be a spoiler.

This show is billed as a comedy, but don’t expect much slapstick farce in this film. The humor is carefully woven into the suspenseful drama. The moments of the film you laugh are the points in the film where you begin to understand Mike’s background. Eisenberg pulls off a klutz of a character that ends up being a hero tripping over his shoelaces — and he pulls it off quite well.

The fight scenes are not as bloody as those in other films, but they grip attention with meticulously staging. Only a stoned superhuman agent could fight this well, using such quirky, well choreographed moves. All this action is tempered by the unfolding of a romance between Mike and Phoebe that increasingly complicates along the way and adds dimension.

If you are looking for a film with technical effects and stunts as slick as Mission Impossible, this film is not for you. But if you are looking for a movie that is what Roger Moore calls “fun in a bad way and bad in a fun way,” you will like this movie. Go see it.

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(If you do see American Ultra, remember to stay for the credits to the end. They are an animated epilogue for the film.)

Straight Outta Compton — For All to See

straightOuttaF. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton is a film about the group NWA as it emerged from the streets of Compton in Los Angeles, California in the mid-1980s and revolutionized Hip Hop culture with their music and culture of their lives in the hood. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Antonio Hawkins), and Easy-E (Jason Mitchell) are the musical leaders in a tenuous relationship with their manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti).

Gray’s Compton could have been just another one in a long line of other biopics, but my take on this movie is that while films about Ray Charles, James Brown, or the Jersey Boys, for instance, expose racism and the hedonistic trappings and even self-destruction in celebrity life, Gray’s Compton takes things a step further and shows musicians who took matters into their own hands in a bold way.

The film’s narrative is what one might expect: ordinary artists getting their first big break, leaping to sudden success and fame (along with money and sex and drugs, of course), but the similarity breaks off there. The Artists in N.W.A. did not show up to sing in suit and tie. They looked like and sounded like the world they came from. The leap from South Central L.A. to the fame and wealth of celebrity life is rendered without much romantic nostalgia — tales of “bad things happening to good people,” or vice versa. In fact, what I like about Gray’s film is that it rightly blurs the difference between what qualifies as “good or bad. ”

What does come through clearly is that Gansta Rap (and earlier genres of Hip Hop) happened for relevant reasons and were cultural assets. The musical and literary forms reflected the artists’ experiences. Through Gray’s lens on N.W.A. we hear their battle songs positioned not as threats, but as a confrontation directed at law enforcement, a manipulative commercial entertainment producer, and even at organized crime.

Finally, as the film unfolds it becomes poignant, as Straight Outta Compton rings true against a backdrop of current headlines, and we see why “Black lives matter.” This is not a film about living happily ever after. Straight Outtta Compton shows ways to understand and humanize the troubling narratives that divide us. There is something for everyone here, check it out:

Mission: Impossible

Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation received enthusiastic reviews and the film delivered more than trailers let on. In this sequel, the disbanded IMF has been replaced with the Syndicate, which is out to create a new world order with terrorist attacks. Ethan and his team form a rogue nation and plunge into a most impossible mission.

Tom Cruise’s well known spy character, Ethan Hunt, is what Richard Roeper characterized as James Bond with a touch of Bourne. Hunt flirts with death, but does it in style. He carries the most advanced gadgets, like a digital multi key lock picker,  swims underwater longer than anyone can, and has driving skill that James Bond would envy. Hunt does all this while exchanging smoldering glances with Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust, (a double agent who might be working for the good guys after all), which makes any romance between the two that much more dicey.

Alec Baldwin, as the CIA director Alan Hunley, carries his role with the dramatic weight one would expect, but only in a few scenes. Jeremy Renner, as William Brandt and Ving Rhames, as Luther Stickell are Hunt’s loyal allies.

One of the best spectacles in the film was the scene back stage at the Vienna Opera. The drama and music on the stage crescendo drama and suspense, while agents fight and swing through the air on the riggings above.

The movie is a fast paced action film that picks up from the beginning and carries to the end. Though the drama doesn’t linger in one place long enough to develop complicated characters; it does keep the pace, building up several dangerous situations, in which Hunt and his adversaries remain secure in their stealth skill and experience — with a smart crack or two.

If you want an entertaining film that lives up to previous Mission: Impossible sequels, you might like this one, too.

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Judd Apatow’s new film Trainwreck  has fairly high (and some excellent) reviews, so I was expecting a good film when I bought a ticket. On top of good expectations, I was also pleasantly surprised with a far richer dramatic experience than trailers reveal.

The casting alone tells you that this will be a funny film, with two hours and five minutes to flex their character-building muscles, interspersed with cameos from many SNL actors. The characters are balanced without any one character stealing the spotlight. LeBron James steps into his role naturally, along with John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Tilda Swinton and many others.

Trainwreck is a romantic comedy that makes some intelligent points about the ways we punish ourselves and sabotage our own happiness. Amy (Amy Schumer) is trapped in a dead-end job at a sensationalist magazine. As the plot begins, Amy is sent to research a story in the world of athletics, where she meets Aaron (Bill Hader) and a romance develops.

The characters are developed around their quirks in complex and uncomfortable ways, yet we are happy know them. The tension between Amy and Aaron pushes the envelope to edges that only they could find.   Aaron is a solid, loyal and trustful guy, but Amy is introduced as a dysfunctional, sometimes ugly character. Her quirks are rendered as believable, without the comic exaggeration we are used to in Saturday Night Live scripts; but this is good news! Aaron continually pursues Amy as she negotiates the fine line between between her dysfunction and her desire to change. And this tension keeps us watching.

All said, I believe this film delivers more than I thought I would get and it shows off some convincing acting and a cycle of emotions, with a charming backdrop of  SNL-syle moments. Though this film is not for children, most people would enjoy it either as SNL at its best or just a good romance  narrative.

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Asif Kapadia’s documentary film, Amy, is a compelling film portrayal of the singer Amy Winehouse.  I was unfamiliar with her music before I saw this film, but I feel, now, that I know the musician and her music well.

Kapadia’s film is produced with video footage of Amy, herself. Home video and professional clips introduce  Amy as a young teen, with birthday parties and family ties, who is eventually thrust into the brutal world of paparazzi cameras. Her new, exhausting celebrity life with the limelight just outside her front door, leads her to a private world of drugs and alcohol, as if to become invisible.

From the beginning, we see that this is not just an eyewitness documentary camera recording “just the facts.” In fact, audience members will soon forget they are watching a documentary. Kapadia creates a space of brutal and intense drama. The film quickly jumps from close ups to longer shots that spin from scene to scene. Her powerful singing, her dysfunctional traits and her downward spiral is told in a cyclone of cinematic space.  Yet, from beginning to end, we never lose sight of the complicated musician redeeming herself with her voice — all without dime-store psychology and sentimental patronizing.

In the end, Amy sings with one of her idols, Tony Bennett, who eulogizes her as one among the ranks of Dinah Washington, Billie Holliday and Aretha Franklin. To understand Amy Winehouse is to see that her music was inextricable from her personality — as genuine as anyone can be.

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Terminator: Genisys — “I’ll be back [like it or not!]”

Alan Taylor’s Terminator: Genisys, is the next in a long string of Terminator films and critics deliver cool, to tepid reviews. I’ll admit I cannot speak for Terminiator fandom, for I have not kept up with every sequel of the Terminator franchise, but my response is still mixed. What originated in the 1980s as a narrative with Schwarzenegger as the unstoppable colossus of destruction and mechanical automation out of control, has evolved to a nicer robot who protects from other forces that threaten apocalypse.

Like the earlier Terminators, this film pits humans against automated technology. This time the film takes up after the cataclysmic destruction of San Francisco (which seems to be destroyed in many a film, lately). Humans battle not only an army robots, but also the threat of an evil, corporate-driven artificial intelligence system, Genisys. The system lives in the guise of a network that syncs everyone’s computers and mobile devices, (familiar? the “cloud”?). This system secretly wants to enslave and destroy humans — people controlled by and through their mobile devices. Worst fears come true? Maybe, but in my mind, it wasn’t that convincing, just cliche.

Despite these drawbacks, there is some crafty intrigue in the film. The collapse of the time-space continuum plays out in very unpredictable ways that can evoke the uncertainty of the plot: Who is human? And who is machine? The problem is that these time jumps could be very confusing when they don’t match up with B-movie devices — camera shots taken directly from earlier sequels, a CGI-generated young Schwarzenegger, and of course the old sage, himself, stating: “I’ll be back… .”

If you want to see some great technical effects in another dystopian film where corruption is saved by human wit and determination, then this is a good film. Myself, I think they could have tried harder. Better luck next time.

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Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope is a film about life in Los Angeles as seen through the eyes of three teens in the suburb of Inglewood. High school life has long been a popular theme in youth fiction, especially with the trials and adventures of being teenagers in middle-class, White America. But this film takes all mischief and hijinks and  recasts them in a rich and complex story about the after-school lives of three African American young people.

Malcom (Shameik Morre) and his two friends, Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kersey Clemons), have formed a punk band, are picked on by bullies, and show to be pretty good computer hacks, as well — all styled with 90s hip-hop. This combination brings a rare mix of ironies that make for a compelling plot. We get to know generally happy kids that live in what is called “the hood,” with rich experiences, complicated lives, romances, and anxieties of teen years, but without the sanitized world of Happy Days.

The film doesn’t fall back on social and sexual stereotypes of becoming a teenager, but it unpacks them as the rich and complicated slices of life they are. Instead of Middle Class White kids hanging out at a mall, this film has well-intentioned African-American teens who get caught in a battle between drug-dealers. They become wise quickly, however, and pull off a solution that seems as clever as something from Ocean’s 13.

This film would appeal to most anyone, but its sexual references and violence are not for kids. Nevertheless, go see it!

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